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August 8, 2016

Film vs movie – Which is the best term to use?

Film Movie image 01 400In the last few weeks I have been writing articles about big budget Hollywood blockbusters and in doing so I have faced a linguistic dilemma.  Until now, I almost exclusively used the term film on this blog, rather than movie.  It somehow felt more appropriate and mirrored the conversations I have in the industry.  However, it sounds strange to refer to ‘Fast & Furious 7″ as a film rather than a movie, so I opted to talk about “Hollywood movies” in those articles.  

Now I’m back to writing about things other than Hollywood blockbusters and I find myself… confused.  Which is the better phrase?  Which of the two do most people use? What do they even mean?

So, as regular readers would expect, I have turned to the data to have a look at which term is most commonly used.  It seems we need to split this question down into three smaller questions:

  1. Professionals vs Public – Which term is more freely used by the industry and among the general public?
  2. Location – Does the choice of term differ between countries?
  3. Meaning – How are the two terms used?

Industry professionals

Over the years I have conducted many interviews and surveys with industry professionals and so I went back to all the answers I got to open-ended questions.  I looked at all 3,198 responses, checking for usage of the terms film and movie and grouping the results by the industry sectors the respondents worked in.

82% of the time people used either of the terms film or movie, they opted for film.  The most liberal users of movie work in post-production but even they favour film to movie three-quarters of the time.

film movie survey

Industry press

At the start of last year I performed a big research project into the film industry press, and so I was able to analyse my cache of 239,720 industry headlines for uses of the terms film and movie.  

The results were very similar, with four times as many headlines featuring film than those using movie. The UK-based publication Screen International used the term movie very infrequently (in just 115 of the 20,019 articles I looked at), foreshadowing a geographic component to this debate which I will address in a moment.

film movie industry press

Popular press

It’s not possible for me to survey all newspapers but I wanted to take a look at least one major newspaper, to see where they sit on the film vs movie debate.  I opted for the Guardian, as I felt that of all UK newspapers, they cover the largest number of media stories.  I gathered data on all 10,282 articles in their film section between January 2008 and April 2016.  

By looking at the headlines, we’re able to see that they too opt for film over movie, 82% of the time.  Interestingly, they are using movie more frequently in recent years.  In 2010 only 8.4% of the headlines feature movie over film, whereas by the start of this year that has risen to 26.8%.

film movie Guardian film section

The chart above only looks at the headlines so I wanted to spot-check to make sure that the text within the articles told the same story as the headlines.  I couldn’t break the data down by year due to the volume (over 5.4 million words!), but I was able to calculate that film is used in place of movie 74% of the time (i.e. very similar usage as within headlines).

Below is a word cloud made from all articles published in the Guardian Film section between January 2008 and April 2016 (the more frequently a word is used, the larger is appears).

film vs movie Guardian wordcloud 03

Civilians

Let’s widen our net further and look at the general public.  By using the Reddit N-gram tool, we are able to track the usage of the terms film and movie across all of Reddit.  This shows between October 2007 and July 2015, movie was used 73% of the time and film only 27% of the time.

film movie reddit

I widened our study to look at all Google searches, by using the Google Trends tool.  I downloaded data on searches of the phrases film and movie across 208 countries and territories, from January 2004 to July 2016.  Movie is the clear winner, with an average of almost twice as many searches as film.

film movie google searches

Regional Differences

With the Google data for so many countries, it’s possible to look at how usages for each of the two terms differs across the world.  Perhaps the most interesting difference is between the UK and America.  In the US, the term movie is used eight times as often as film, whereas in the UK they are as common as each other.

film movie Google USA UK

I have put the country-by-country data into an interactive map, but sadly WordPress doesn’t want to embed the chart on this site.  Therefore, you can see the full interactive map here and I have pasted a screenshot below.

film movie map 01

Here are some of the highlights:

  • United States – 11% film vs 89% movie
  • Japan – 14% film vs 86% movie
  • Australia – 17% film vs 83% movie
  • Canada – 19% film vs 81% movie
  • New Zealand – 20% film vs 80% movie
  • India – 24% film vs 76% movie
  • Ireland – 38% film vs 62% movie
  • Russia – 42% film vs 58% movie
  • Spain – 42% film vs 58% movie
  • United Kingdom – 47% film vs 53% movie
  • Germany – 63% film vs 37% movie
  • France – 87% film vs 13% movie
  • Italy – 87% film vs 13% movie

When we group the countries by continent we can see that film is holding its own in Europe and Africa but overwhelmed in the Americas.

film vs movie by continent

The difference in meaning

In the strictest sense, both terms can be used interchangeably.  Dictionaries describe both words as describing a feature film and the Wikipedia page for Movie automatically forwards to the page for Film.  However, common usage implies a subtle difference. I will leave it to the wonderful Alan Parker to explain the difference via a cartoon from his superb book Will Write And Direct For Food (the books is a must-own for all film professionals and can be bought on Amazon). 

Film vs Movie Alan Parker

Conclusion

This quick dive into the data won’t end the debate between the two terms, but it has shown us three things:

  1. The people working in and reporting on the industry favour the term film 
  2. In the US, the term movie is much more often used than film.
  3. In the UK it’s pretty much a tie between the two phrases
  4. Movie wins in the Americas but is on a par with film in Europe and Africa.

Notes

It should be noted that the word film has other meanings than just a feature film, whereas the word movie is only used to mean a feature film (at a stretch you could say it also describes the act of going to see a film, as in “We’re going to the movies”).  When looking at the industry and press usage, it’s extremely unlikely that the word film was being used to refer to anything but a feature film. The same cannot be said of the Google search but sadly there is no way to disentangle the irrelevant searches.

I could not control for population in my Google search data (meaning that my continents chart is one-country-one-vote), nor could I take account of cultural influences.

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25 Responses

  1. David Nicholas Wilkinson August 8, 2016 at 9:31 am #

    It should be movie.

    Film was the name of the material that movies were shot on – celluloid film. As hardly any “film” is now shot on celluloid film so movie is the better term.

    I made the mistake of making THE FIRST FILM proving that the worlds first film was made in Leeds in 1888. I should have called it THE FIRST MOVIE as one historian has said it was not the first film as it was not shot on celluloid film but on a paper negative. In a literal sense he was right.

    All film festivals show most of their movies on digital not on film. They should actually be called movie festivals as it is concept we are celebrating – a one off visual story.

    • Forrest August 8, 2016 at 9:37 am #

      Funny. I wrote a very similar comment before I saw yours posted.

    • Rich July 23, 2017 at 11:41 pm #

      Movie is a stupid Americanism. The term should be a film even if actual film isn’t used in its making.

      • Jan Egil Kristiansen November 11, 2018 at 12:53 pm #

        It is an Americanism all right, and a good one. ‘Movie’ is the best word, unless you really indend to focus on the film medium.

        Good old European words for cinema, like ‘Kino’ or ‘bio’ also refer to the movement of the image, not the medium.

        Of course, ‘film’ is useful if you feel the need to distance yourself from the USA.

        • Maximus December 25, 2018 at 11:47 am #

          No, foreign slang terms such as that are hardly the “best” terms. If you feel the need to abbreviate the full phrase, which is moving picture/motion picture, use ‘picture.’ Never use idiotic slang terms like ‘movie’ which doesn’t even make sense in its abbreviation. Both the Oxford and Cambrisge dictionaries classify film/picture as synonyms and “movie as North American slang. Film has long since evolved past its original meaning.For a more informal English word use flick. Plenty of existing synonyms in the language without having to bring in foreign slang.

  2. Forrest August 8, 2016 at 9:35 am #

    Regardless of usage stats, it would seem that – increasingly – movie is the better descriptive word. I say this because “movie” is apparently a shortened form of “moving pictures” and something is a moving picture whether shot digitally or on traditional film stock.

    I assume the term “film” originated because movies were, for decades, filmed (as in shot on celluloid). Today, that is often not the case.

    As a film journalist, I align with your findings, in that I prefer the word “film” and use it more often. That said, I am not entirely convinced the word is appropriate when referring to a product that was shot, edited and exhibited digitally. It seems to me, that those projects are movies.

    Of course, it is completely fine for a word to move beyond its etymology. But I have often thought about the most appropriate word when considering the digital era.

  3. Ross Sarginson August 8, 2016 at 10:51 am #

    ‘Film’ all the way for me

  4. Niru Bhatia August 8, 2016 at 2:33 pm #

    What about “Cinema”? I manage a film festival and encourage my audience to use “film” for meaningful cinema. The rest are movies. Thanks

    • Elise April 11, 2019 at 3:38 pm #

      Great articulation of something a lot of people do unconsciously.

  5. Tomasz August 8, 2016 at 4:04 pm #

    Amazing as always. And yes, there’s still some people who say “Let’s go see this picture” or “motion picture”.
    I think you may need to factor in the fact that in some countries the word “movie” translates to “film”. i.e. in Polish, “film” is the only word that would ever be used.

    • Dane August 9, 2016 at 2:03 am #

      Excellent point

  6. Mark Brasil August 8, 2016 at 7:51 pm #

    Movie

  7. Dane August 9, 2016 at 2:02 am #

    I work on a film, I watch a movie. In a weird attempt to keep business and pleasure separate. :-p

  8. Toby Miller August 9, 2016 at 4:38 am #

    The technical term in English is of course ‘motion pictures,’ so to be catalogued professionally you’d need to deploy that word

  9. Leonard August 9, 2016 at 6:20 am #

    I only call a film that moves me, a movie.

  10. Martijn August 9, 2016 at 9:30 am #

    In Europe, a lot of languages call a movie a film, simply because in their native language it is film. For instance, in French it’s le film, in German it’s der Film, in Portuguese it’s o filmo, in Dutch it’s de film and so on. That might be the reason that that word is used a lot in Europe.

  11. Alison August 17, 2016 at 2:45 pm #

    I wonder if there’s a correlation between The Guardian’s increasing use of ‘movie’ 2011 onwards, and the launch of Guardian US in late 2011, specifically targeting American readers. Certainly looks as though, as an online news brand, using ‘movie’ over ‘film’ would improve your SEO in the US!

  12. Sadia (Movie) April 20, 2017 at 5:53 pm #

    Great Post ! I have read your other posts which are really informative for film vs movie. Thanks

  13. Pari Chopade January 13, 2018 at 2:06 am #

    “Movie” for a long film and “film” for all.

  14. Leopold March 8, 2018 at 6:00 pm #

    Hat off for the data crunching. That gives some real insight. Now, what do we say when we’re going to see such film/movie in the … Movies, Movie House, Movie Theatre, Theatre, Cinema, Cinema Hall, Bioscoop etc etc?!

  15. Mees November 3, 2018 at 10:19 pm #

    Great data! It should be noted that because your research is focused on the use of “film” and “movie” in the English language, this doesn’t really work for some other countries like France, Germany and Italy. In all the official languages of these countries, “film” is the only word for the English words “film” and “movie”. So in these countries “film” is used a lot more often, because of people googling in their own language and it gives therefor not a good image which word people in these countries would choose when they’re writing in English. It is interesting to see the data for countries like Spain, where the word for film is “película” and you can therefor be fairly certain, that Spanish people are writing something in English when using the words “film” or “movie”.

  16. Alex January 21, 2019 at 11:40 pm #

    I also prefer film (As I think film is the only valid option)…If we are to think about how the words formed, the term “movie” is related to the verb “move”, which is accurate in this case since films are moving images (Static normal images that are taken by the cameras in order to “deceive” the public that a movement occurs – usually a 60 fps standar for today’s films). Anyway, this shows that the term “movie” is simplistic and frankly it sounds stupid when one says this word to refer to a film. Most of the people aren’t aware of the fact that films are nothing more than images that are displayed at a high speed, fitted to make the eye think they (the ensemble of images) are creating a motion. Thus, the word “movie” (or a variant of this word) is found in no other language and is a pure creation of English speakers. I can easily imagine a situation of peasants after going to watch a film saying : “Howdy, nice movie, didn’t you think so?”

  17. Ana August 3, 2019 at 6:48 am #

    I have always felt the distinction between the two terms as such: film is most often a serious, high quality cinematic work, while movie is more of a product with high entertainment value.

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